Indianapolis--No one thought it would ever happen: A Winston Cup stock car race on the storied Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But, on Saturday, The Brickyard 400 will see dream turned into reality.
"The Brickyard" is the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and it has been the domain of Indy cars ever since Ray Haroun won the first 500-miler there in 1911.
The Indianapolis 500 has for decades been the largest one-day sporting event in the world. Saturday, when the Winston Cup stock cars run for the first time here, the Speedway will add to its racing lore by playing host to the second-largest one-day sporting event in the world.
The Speedway, which has close to 300,000 seats, has been sold out for a year. Officials say they had to turn back three of every four requests they received for this race.
"The driver who wins this race will go down in history like the first man who walked on the moon," said legendary Winston Cup car owner Junior Johnson, who will field the cars of Bill Elliott and Jimmy Spencer among the 80 entries.
Saturday, the best of professional stock car racing will start their engines on Indy's front straight and begin their own flight into history.
Just where it fits into stock car racing's 45-year history is an open question.
Stock car racing has had perhaps four or five defining moments during those 4 1/2 decades:
* The first super speedway race at Darlington, S.C., in 1950.
* Richard Petty's father, Lee, winning the first Daytona 500 in 1959.
* The marriage of stock car racing with the R. J. Reynolds Co. and its Winston brand of cigarettes in 1971.
* The 1979 Daytona 500, the first Winston Cup stock car race broadcast live on national television.
* Bill Elliott winning the "Winston Million" the first year it was offered in 1985, by winning all three of the sport's crown jewels (Daytona, Winston and Southern 500s) in the same season and landing on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
How The Brickyard 400 fits in won't be known for a while, but this will be the Winston Cup series' first foray into the Midwest. And it should be quite a show.
Of the 80 entries, 44 can make the field. Forty will qualify on the racetrack today and tomorrow, while four additional starting spots also will be available: two will be provisional starting positions for two teams on the Winner's Circle program, another will go to the Winston West points leader -- should he fail to qualify -- and the fourth is available for a past Winston Cup points champion.
The race will be broadcast live by ABC at noon.
Some of the biggest roadblocks to staging this race were the egos of Speedway officials and NASCAR officials. The two groups dictate within their respective kingdoms.
In Winston Cup racing, NASCAR and its president, Bill France, make the rules and change the rules as they see fit to keep competition at its best. At Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it is president Tony George, his staff and the U.S. Auto Club who always have told the IndyCar teams competing here how they will run, what they can run and everything else they can do -- no matter what their sanctioning body, IndyCar, says elsewhere.
This time, NASCAR will run the event and qualifying, but much to the irritation of many involved in Winston Cup racing, it is the Speedway that will control everything else.
Restrictions at Indianapolis Motor Speed way have grated against a number of NASCAR drivers, car owners and broadcasters. Everything from souvenir sales to radio broadcasts to spots for teams' motor homes evidently have been contended.
Because Indianapolis has its own radio network, no other radio networks are being credentialed, not even Motor Racing Network, NASCAR's week-in, week-out carrier, although MRN broadcasters Mike Joy and Ned Jarrett have been hired by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Radio Network to serve as play-by-play announcer and analyst on the planned 11 hours of air time, covering qualifying, call-in talk shows, pre-race and race coverage.
On the driver and team level, several are in a huff over Indy regulations that would charge $1,500 for a team's motor home in the infield and then allow access only from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The track officials also are insisting that the teams buy all food from a catering company that has the contract with the Speedway.
The catering demands caused IndyCar teams equal consternation in May when team sponsors were denied the right to bring in their own chefs for their traditional high-brow menu.
"Ninety percent of the time, I take my family with me, and we stay in our motor home in the infield," said Winston Cup points leader Ernie Irvan. "But this is ridiculous. They even said we'd have to buy our baby's food from their caterer. Unbelievable. I'm leaving my trailer home, and my family will eat what they want to eat."
Speedway officials deny that they would insist on supplying baby food and formula, but as for the rest, any food for entertainment purposes must be provided by the track caterer.
Other drivers are equally irked, because the motor homes will be parked in an unsecured area of the vast infield that, drivers contend, makes security for them and their families passing from the coach area to the garage area uncertain.
The Speedway is not selling infield tickets, but fans sitting in the grandstands will be able to park free in the field and walk through the underground tunnels to their seats.
Then there is the payoff issue.
The winner of the Indianapolis 500 earns $1 million before bonuses and sponsor payoffs are added. The last-place driver collects about $130,000.
Saturday, the man who wins The Brickyard 400 will take home close to $500,000 from a total purse of approximately $3 million. It will be the biggest payoff on the Winston Cup Circuit, nearly doubling what is paid at Daytona ($253,275), from the biggest total purse in Winston Cup history.
But it apparently still isn't big enough to satisfy a number of the top competitors.
"I'm one of the most upset by it," said Rusty Wallace, who co-owns his Winston Cup car with Roger Penske, whose driver, Al Unser Jr., won the Indy 500 in May and pocketed $1.4 million. "It [infuriates] me . . . to think the IndyCar winner gets so much more for a show that isn't anywhere near as competitive and exciting as ours.
"They've sold 300,000 tickets at an average of $50; you can figure out the math. I have no argument with the way our sport is run. We're run by a dictatorship, and it's been very good for us. This sport would be in a shambles run any other way. But this is a big show and I've worked my whole life to get somewhere and all I'm saying is pay the bucks."
The Winston Cup drivers say Speedway president George would have been willing to post the $1 million to win, but NASCAR
president Bill France wouldn't allow it.
"Tony George would have paid," said defending Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt. "Everything at Indy is sold and done. This ain't a new deal where we're going to some big important place to build this series up. This series is built up. But his hands were tied in order to keep everything on a scale with the other weekly payoffs."
Bob Walters, who handles public relations for George and the Speedway, said George has no comment on the payoff postings.
"The Speedway never even comments on the postings for the Indianapolis 500 until after the race," said Walters. "And there is no comment on this."
France said he has heard the comments that the Speedway wanted to pay $1 million to the winner and that he had vetoed it.
"There is nothing to that," he said. "It was never discussed. When we made our agreement, we didn't know how it would be received. We hadn't sold a ticket. The only thing we talked about was the total purse.
"I think the competitors have to look past this one event. The purse is going to be bigger than the one paid at the Daytona 500. I don't have any problem with that and I don't see the purse at Indy staying what it is in the future. It's going to go up in future races."
Like no place else
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with its long front straightaway and backstretch and its four identical turns, isn't like any other track on which the Winston Cup series races.
"It's a little like Pocono [Pa.]," said Richard Childress, who owns Earnhardt's Chevy that has won six Winston Cup titles. "And it's a little like the old track at Ontario, which was flat.
"But it's not really like anywhere we race, and it doesn't sound like anywhere we race either."
Instead of the high-pitched whine of the Indy cars that streak over Indy's 2.5-mile surface at an average speed of 230 mph, the bigger, heavier stock cars motor around this track at 190 mph and produce a loud, low rumble that gave even the veteran Childress goose bumps.
"It's a sound all their own," he said. "That low rumble that we've all heard before rolls out from the cars and then cascades back over you as it comes up against the walls and all those grandstands. It has no place to go but right back at you. It's got to be one of the most thrilling experiences I've ever had."
Some drivers, such as John Andretti, are nervous about qualifying.
"We're not like Dale Earnhardt or Rusty Wallace," he said. "We don't have a guaranteed starting spot, and with 70 to 80 cars to qualify for  starting spots there is going to be a lot of tension and a lot of disappointed people."
But there is also going to be a lot of hope on the line.
Three-time Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip, who hasn't won since the Southern 500 in September 1992, can't wait to get on the racetrack Saturday.
"If I have only one win left in me for the rest of my career, I'm praying it comes at Indy," he said.
A moon walk, indeed
But will winning Indianapolis in a stock car be a feat as celebrated as walking on the moon?
Kyle Petty, who has his feet firmly planted on the ground, grins.
"This is a sport," said Petty. "Sport makes no difference to anything. The only redeeming social value a sport has is in its entertainment value. . . . A hundred years from now, somewhere, sometime, someone will talk about Neil Armstrong landing on the moon, the first guy on the moon.
"A hundred years from now, no one will be talking about the first guy who won Indy in a stock car. At least I would like to think they won't."
But for now, this is Winston Cup cars at Indy, and everyone is talking. Saturday, they'll stop talking and start providing some of that entertainment.